Treasures Tour African Meeting House


DECEMBER 5, 1998

It is a great personal pleasure and honor for me to be here on Beacon Hill at this important historic site, the African Meeting House. As it has already been said, this is a place that holds significance not only for African Americans and their enduring struggle for justice, but for all of us who believe that learning about our past will guide and inspire us for a better future.

I want to thank Sylvia Watts McKinney for her extraordinary contributions to keeping this historic place alive, and for her leadership at the Museum of Afro American History. I would like to ask John Gillis and all the members of the Board of Directors of that museum to stand or raise your hands so that we can thank you as well.

I want to thank Bob Stanton, the director of the National Park Service, and Ken Hidelberg, and all the members of the Park Service who work so hard every day to preserve our treasures throughout our country. I have a great deal of admiration and appreciation for the Park Service. I have visited many of the sites, from our great national parks like Yellowstone to places like this. I know how hard and dedicated the Park Service employees are and I personally and publicly want to thank them for their commitment to doing all they can to make sure that one of the greatest inventions of America, the Park System, will be here for generations to come to enjoy and learn from. So thank you very much.

I do want to thank Professor Horton, who has worked with me starting last summer in understanding that raising public awareness about some of the Treasures sites that we have visited and as you heard, for his eloquent presentation today. Both he and his wife have made major contributions to our understanding of the role and contributions of African Americans in our history. And it's something that we can't do too much. I don't know if, like me, you are always learning new things when you come to places like this. But just in the very short time that we had for Sylvia to show us around, I have already learned a lot. Like about Edmonia Lewis, the daughter of a Choctaw Indian and a black father, one of our earliest American sculptures. And how many Americans know that? How many would take a look at that bust that she did downstairs in the museum and say, "A woman of Native American and African American heritage did that?" I don't think many of us would have thought that. There are so many things to learn about what we have all brought to this wonderful experiment and adventure known as America. I think all the work that you are doing is so significant.

I want to thank the members of the Black Legislative Caucus for their support of this Meeting House, and I want to say a word of appreciation to Ira Jackson and the Bank of Boston for the delicious refreshments that you will get a chance to enjoy in just a short time. I particularly want to thank the two gentleman [Senator Kennedy and Congressman Moakley] who have shared the stage with me. It is hard to say enough laudatory things about them. Certainly they have done so much for Massachusetts and, by extension, our country. We are here today because of their personal commitment to this particular site. I want to thank them both for the recent appropriation by Congress of $1.4 million to the Boston African American National Historic Site to carry out a major restoration of this Meeting House. Thank you so much.

It is especially significant that this space is the space that was the place where the meetings you heard about, attended by people like Frederick Douglas, occurred. But this is not just a static historic site. I know that it continues to play an active role in the modern life of this city, and that it has a lot of activity from community meetings to discussions about race, and cultural workshops to plays. So this simple structure, America's oldest standing black church, tells a story of enormous breadth and complexity that continues to this day and will continue now into the future. You know it offered in the past both slaves and free people of color a place to worship in dignity, to celebrate their African roots, and to nurture their future leaders. But it was more than a church. It was a school, a political and social gathering place, a sacred and secular center in which they could address the racial injustices of that day. You could almost hear the voices of the past, the children's choirs and the Glee club, the young men's literary debating society, the first generation of Boston's free people of color who attended school here. The most soaring voices we can hear if we listen are the voices of those who stood in this hall to denounce slavery and to call for freedom. Those voices were filled with power, and they were especially powerful because for the first time in our nation's history, black and white voices were joined together in their demands for justice and equality.

We know that the white abolitionist, William Garrison, wrote of the "unbending spirit of liberty" of those seeking their freedom had been searching in vain for a meeting place for anti-slavery reformers. No hall in the city opened its doors to him except this African Meeting House. I've read about how William C. Nell, as a young boy, stood outside this house on a snowy, cold evening in 1832 straining his ears to hear Garrison debating issues of slavery and the need for abolition. That night they established the New England Anti-Slavery Society, and William Nell would later become a leading abolitionist, community leader, and historian.

It was here, as well, that Frederick Douglas raised his voice urging black men to answer the nation's call for recruits for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Many of whom would die for the cause of freedom on the battlefields of the Civil War, even as many of their kin folk remained in bondage.

Sometimes the voices in this meeting house were muffled, as runaway slaves used it as a safe haven, an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Now for most of the twentieth century, this building housed a synagogue, and the sounds of Jewish prayers would fill this room -- once again confirming this site as a symbol of the determination and resilience of all who struggled for freedom and human rights. I've just come from another historic site, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow House in Cambridge, and he too raised his voice against slavery. There is so much that happened here that was stipulated and catalyzed by this building. In one of Longfellow's many writings against slavery he said, "Shame that the great republic, the refuge of the oppressed should stoop so low as to become the hunter of slaves." As we seek to learn from it, even grapple with our past, it is this constant measuring of how we live up to our own ideals as Americans that can help us move closer to those ideals and navigate into the future.

The President and I formed the White House Millennium Council as a way to stimulate discussions and thoughts about our past and our future. We chose as our theme, "Honor the past, imagine the future." By coming to sites such as this we are doing just that. We are certainly spotlighting monuments and houses, but more than that, the ideals, the convictions, the beliefs that made these places alive and that are still telling us a story today. It seems fitting that this has become a community project, and I applaud the Afro American Museum's commitment to preserving and using this site, and its ambitious $3.8 million capital campaign which I hear has already passed the 85 percent mark.

Today I am very pleased to announce an additional $40,000 which will help continue this vital preservation work. These funds, which will go toward the endowment, will be used to protect the priceless collection associated with this building. I want to express deep appreciation to the National Association for African American Heritage Preservation for its $10,000 gift. I want to thank NAACP's president, Claudia Polley Love , who is with us today, and the organizations that made this gift possible: American Express and Alamo Rent a Car. I also want to acknowledge the individual contributors who are here, Alan and Susan Solomont who are here with two of their children, Donna and Mack McLarty, Steve and Joan Belkin, and Donna Harris-Lewis who gave her contribution in honor of that great Boston Celtic Reggie Lewis. Thank you all.

As we celebrate the importance of preserving our history, I wanted to note with sadness the recent death of Henry Hampton, whose ground-breaking series, "Eyes on the Prize," opened all of our eyes to both the tragedy of racism and the triumph of the human spirit. It is up to all of us -- government, business, individual citizens, and foundations -- for everyone to become the caretakers of our heritage and to pass our history on to our children and grandchildren. I thank all of you for understanding the importance of this mission and for supporting this house which stands as a powerful reminder of how the events and passions of another time can still speak to us today, and how important it is to keep places like this alive, inspiring us to work even harder to create a more perfect union here in America. Thank you all very much.

December 1998

Treasures Tour Longfellow House

Treasures Tour African Meeting House

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Eleanor Roosevelt Lecture

Neve Shalom, Wahat-Al-Salam Arab-Jewish Village

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Hadassah University Medical Center

People Magazine/Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy Luncheon

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Massachusetts College of Art

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